Does anyone even know what the truth is? Photographer: Pete Marovich/Bloomberg
Does anyone even know what the truth is? Photographer: Pete Marovich/Bloomberg

Information about what happened to the missing e-mails of former Internal Revenue Service official Lois Lerner seems to be creeping out in geologic time. This weekend, William Taylor III, Lerner’s lawyer, went on television and described Lerner’s experience. Lerner came in one morning in 2011, he said, turned on her computer and got a blue screen.

That interested me, because the description is quite specific. What he seems to be describing is the famed Microsoft Windows “blue screen of death.” As any person who has worked in tech support will tell you -- and I guess that includes me right now -- the Blue Screen of Death is usually caused by a hardware error. Your operating system sees that something isn’t working, and it tells everyone to stop what they’re doing immediately and shut down. The operating system dumps an error report to your hard drive and flashes the dreaded Blue Screen.

This can be a harbinger of worse to come, like a hard drive or motherboard on its way to the Big Desktop in the Sky. Or it can be a transient problem. The rule of thumb is that if you’re getting them weekly, it’s time to back up the hard drive and prepare for the worst; if you get one every few months, you probably shouldn’t worry too much.

"Why are you telling me this?" you ask.

Well, because as I mentioned above, the Blue Screen of Death is an operating system error. The operating system lives on the hard drive. Which raises a question: If Lerner’s hard drive was so thoroughly malfunctioning that no one could even get the data off of it, how was it booting up far enough for the operating system to malfunction? This is not the description of the problem that I would have expected to hear; I would have expected to hear that her computer wouldn’t really boot up at all, perhaps while horrible grinding noises emanated from its innards. In most cases, a computer displaying the Blue Screen of Death is a computer with a hard drive functioning well enough for data recovery. If I were Lerner's IT support person, I would waste no time in getting the hard drive to a working computer, where I’d connect it as a secondary drive and transfer off all the files, because the Blue Screen of Death is often a harbinger of future hard drive failure. But it was not, in my experience, usually a symptom of the actual failure.

I’ve been mulling this for a few days, thinking through what might have happened. Here’s what I’ve come up with so far:

  1. The last dying act of Lois Lerner’s hard drive was that Blue Screen of Death. Immediately after issuing that fateful warning, it took the hands of its waiting friends and relatives and went off into the light. Possible, though not particularly likely.
  2. Lerner’s hard drive was encrypted, the drive failure did something to the encryption, and it hadn’t backed up the key. Possible. The IRS does seem to encrypt some of its files, though it’s not clear to me whether it encrypts the whole drive. That seems like overkill to me, but maybe it’s necessary to protect confidential tax files.
  3. Lerner is using the term wrong. End users have a funny habit of getting hold of a technical term, then using it indiscriminately to describe everything that goes wrong with their computer. “I’m having the Blue Screen of Death! Come immediately!” No, sir, actually, the wireless batteries in your mouse died. I’ve never heard users grab hold of this particular term, but hey, I left the industry a decade ago, and it’s certainly not impossible. She may not have been describing an actual blue screen but using that as a catchall term for “major problem with my computer.” Or her lawyer may be the Jargonophile.
  4. The description got garbled between Lerner and her lawyer. The more you learn about eyewitness accounts, the more you realize how terrible they are. Memory is not a video camera; it is a narrative your brain has pieced together from scattered fragments. Add in another person and you’ve got an especially unreliable game of Telephone.

It would help to have more information from the IRS about what went wrong. Presumably it has those records in its help desk ticket system, so hopefully they’ll be released soon. Meanwhile, we’ll just have to keep wondering what the heck happened.

To contact the author of this article: Megan McArdle at mmcardle3@bloomberg.net.

To contact the editor responsible for this article: James Gibney at jgibney5@bloomberg.net.